There were a bunch of us radio obsessed kids on Long Island in the early 1950s. Of course we occupied the absolute bottom rung of the social ladder. While the other guys were playing sports and dating girls we were busy on the Projector Squad, Stage Crew and Radio Club. While I can still set up a 16mm projector in mere seconds should I be called upon to do that, these skills seemed to count for very little with my peers.
But then came a great stroke of good luck. A local ham, Mr. Baker, K2BKO, established an Air Scout Squadron at Mitchel AFB. It was devoted entirely to ham radio. We had a complete building as a club house, access to tons of surplus gear and, best of all, a place to meet and enjoy the company of our peers, all under the benevolent hand of Mr. Baker. I have never forgotten him or Squadron 466. I've always looked for the opportunity to give others a little bit of what he gave us. We hung out over at K2AIR, the base station under the command of Bob Dittus. He had the Eldico twins and a big amp. Us yardbirds sat on the floor in respectful silence, watching the 866s flash in the gathering darkness of dusk, completely enthralled. If any Squadron 466 veterans read this I'd love to hear from you.
Mr. Baker set up benches in the military style, each with a key, earphone jack and earphones. Up front was a Morse code practice machine that read translucent tapes. Week after week we'd pound away trying to learn the code. Finally a shaky 5wpm was achieved and we were ready to take our tests for the Novice license. In those days the tests could be administered by any ham with a General class ticket or better. Mr. Baker gave us the test, solemnly sealed the results in an envelope and sent them off to the FCC. The wait for our licenses was excruciating but finally an envelope marked Federal Communications Commission arrived. We were hams!
But what kind of call was this? WV2BJK? Who ever heard of such a thing? We were disappointed that we had just missed the last of the K calls. But that passed. It was time to get on the air!
I don't know how so many of us survived this period. Command sets were a dime a dozen so they formed the basis of many a station. But one needed a pretty hefty power supply to to make those plates glow cherry red which we were convinced was their proper state. Luckily, the TV sets of the era were full of just what a young ham needed to make a truly dangerous power supply. I remember one friend who made one on a gutted TV chassis with two power transformers in series. The B+ was picked off via a meter probe with a clip lead on the end The wire arced through space to the much modified command transmitter. When he hit the key the whole supply emitted a "HUnnngh" sound and the probe swayed in air from the magnetic flux of the choke. We all should have been electrocuted many times over.
I myself went for a Globe Scout and the Hallicrafters S-38C I had been using as a SWL. Let's see? What band to use? The roof of my parent's house was just the right length for a 15m dipole so my choice was made for me. But working 15m on a S-38C was not an easy task. Never a stable receiver even at lower frequencies the '38 was in over its head on 15m. I distinctly remember my mom walking across the floor downstairs and losing the entire Novice band from the vibration. Bet we didn't know any better and we were having the time of our lives. The Novice bands were filled wall to wall every day on 15m and every evening on 80m and 40m. You could here everything from chirping 6V6s to the "big guns" with Heathkit DX-35s. Very often one would hear a veteran operator patiently in contact with a struggling new ham, doing his best to bring him along.
I remember being called very early in my on-the-air career by a veteran station that was obviously doing his best to send slowly enough for me. I was flattered by the attention. But when I answered his "QTH?" with "Long Island" he was gone as quickly as he had come. He thought the new, exotic WV call meant the Virgin Islands and I was left to begin again with my shaky CQ s.
But the Novice license lasted just a year. Soon we faced the need to upgrade to the General class license. And we knew what that meant: a trip into Manhattan to face the dreaded Mr. Finkleman whose headquarters were in the the Federal Building on Washington St. Even though we were frightened to our souls by the prospect it's something I think new hams today miss to their detriment.
Stepping off the subway were laughing and joking. By the time we turned into Washington Street we had become notably subdued. Soon we were walking down a long, dimly lit marble hallway. At the end was a massive door with a frosted window on which was painted FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION. All talking had long since stopped. Our mouths tasted of dust. We knew that radiomen had entered that door and never been seen again. The bravest among us grasped the large brass knob - with an eagle cast on its face. The door creaked open. We timidly slipped inside.
Guys wearing vests and fedoras went about their duties, oblivious the the little crowd of kids huddling just inside the door, the cords from their earphones dragging on the floor. In front of us was a counter that seemed so high you could hardly see the top. Finally a face loomed over it, staring down at us. Finkleman! "Yeah, what do you kids want?" "I... um, that is, we... um.. we want to take our ham radio test sir!" we finally managed to squeak out. "In there!" We followed the direction of Finkleman's crooked thumb, knowing we were going to our doom. We put on the 'phones and copied what we hoped was a minute solid. No questions and answers about what you copied. A minute solid and nothing less would do. We all made it. Then on to the written. More sweating. But finally it was over. I think I actually saw a glint in Finkleman's eye when he told us we passed. Before we could think about it we were back on the street as if shot out by a pneumatic tube.
There was only one thing to do in such an occasion. We walked over to visit the fabled "Radio Row" on Cortlandt Street, then at its peak. But that's another story.